Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

More of a collection of poetry fragments, parables, and clever wordplay than a regular novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers immerses us in the home of a father and his two boys, recently bereft of their wife and mother, and attended by a grief-eating, grief-healing crow. It’s funny and sad. At one hundred pages and less than an hour to read, it seems excessive to spend many words on a review, so instead I will paste this delightful chapter elucidating the psychology of a crow:

Head down, tot-along, looking
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAHH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p-45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could a learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Short books are strange. I’ve read many good ones and forgotten most of them. It seems like like there is some minimum time investment, something reached only by the repeated labor of turning pages, that is personally required for a book to feel like a book, to be shelved mentally between the memories of thousands of others. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

There’s two different kinds of prequels.

The first is most interested in the world of the story it is prequalizing. It will feel familiar in setting and tone, but the plot and events will only be distantly related. The story is self-contained, regardless of what occurs in the chronological future and literary past. I prefer this type.

The second is concerned with the characters and the events that led them to the place they start the original story. It elaborates on missing details of their personality or backstory and in general fills in the gaps. Unlike the first kind, this prequel relies on the reader having first read the original work. 

The Book of Dust, whose plot revolves around the fate of baby Lyra, the child protagonist of the His Dark Materials series, is the second type. While Lyra is not the main character here (she’s an infant), the story is all about answering questions of her past and putting her in the place she’ll eventually start the main series. The reason I like this structure less than the first is that the big important stuff has already happened. Actually, it has yet to happen but I’ve already read it. It makes everything feel like small potatoes as the the plot, regardless of how well written or interesting it might be, is all set-up for the big stuff.

I read the big stuff 20 years ago. His Dark Materials stuck with me as a young teen, as very few young adult books did then or since, which is why I picked this book up as soon as I saw it front-and-center at the book store. Pullman does not insult his reader’s intelligence and his splendid prose was (and is) far better than most authors writing for young people. The language is largely indistinguishable from an adult book and occasionally when he uses an unfamiliar word, Pullman will turn it into a learning experience. For instance, on page 3, you read:

More than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly.

Then a page or two later, Malcolm asks Sister Benedicta what a chasuble is. It’s a clever device. It bonds the reader to Malcolm by acknowledging you were both thinking the same thing and it establishes the narrator as a warm presence who is thoughtful in regards to how the reader is absorbing each individual word.

The Book of Dust, despite being lettered all big on the cover is actually the series’ name. Book 1 is technically called La Belle Sauvage, which is the name of the sturdy canoe of our eleven year old hero, Malcolm Polstead. Far up the Thames from London lies a cozy inn named the Trout, across from an old stone bridge where a Priory full of nuns sells baked goods and provides sanctuary to weary travelers and political dissidents alike. This is Malcolm’s world, as the son of the innkeepers, frequent student of the nuns, and river adventurer atop La Belle Sauvage. The first half of the novel lies entirely within this setting. The nuns take in a particularly unusual guest. Shady figures roam the inn and priory at night. The ever-oppressive Church invades Malcolm’s school. While slow-paced and somewhat uneventful, it’s easy to become absorbed in the day to day drama of the locale. It’s the book’s better half.

The second half of the book is the inevitable adventure awaiting all boys with trusty boats. The Thames floods and Malcolm is whisked away towards London, bearing a precious cargo. The setting shifts here, uneasily from science-based-magic to pure fairy tale. Underwater giants and faerie queens. Magic mirrors and fruit. It’s not a good shift. Pullman dabbles in archetypal stories and is simply not as good at it as he is with other themes, and worse, not as good as good as other writers who have done the same. Everything from impossible waterfalls to phantom villages peopled by ghosts are crucially lacking the enchantment they require. On top of this, the final confrontation with the main antagonist is stupid in like six separate ways. Too bad; he was a good villain. 

The climatic scene wherein we arrive in London is rushed (strange for a book twenty years in the making) and as I closed the back cover, I was left with a general feeling of “huh.” I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much of this was on La Belle Sauvage’s own merits versus the hoary roots of nostalgia sunk deeply in my childhood, but I’ll almost certainly continue on to book two.

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War

The Lord of the Rings, a series easy to forget is named after its villain, holds up mercy as an essential virtue. The hobbits, first as Bilbo and later as Frodo and Sam, choose mercy when opting not to kill Gollum. This leads to the destruction of the ring. It’s clear from the get-go that you cannot defeat Sauron with Sauron’s methods. Boromir is not our hero, but our tragic lesson.

This brings us to Shadow of War, the second part of a series all about trying to defeat Sauron using Sauron’s methods. Armies of orcs. Brutal means. Forging your own rings of power. It can be delightful to take a beloved property and stamp your muddy narrative boots all over its pristine sheets. This game does not care one whit for mercy. There’s an air of futility about it all — we’ve known from the start that Talion and Celebrimbor do not succeed in killing Sauron. Yet the game asks us to partake in the killing and gleefully we accept, as you’re supposed to in video games, the majority of which involve mass slaying. Shortly before killing an orc captain, the game paused so he could tell Talion/Me “I’ve killed one hundred and sixty seven orcs and men. How many have you killed? You can’t remember, can you?”

Can you? It put me in mind of getting a “kill 1000 bandits” achievement in Dragon Age.

I don’t want to oversell the narrative here. It’s not all that great, and most of what’s good about it is generously assisted by my own imagination. It has some majorly weak parts, not least of all portraying Shelob the Spider as beautiful woman, and all of the supporting cast that are not blessed with being an orc are dour and forgettable. Still, there’s something about tie-in fiction that’s not aping the original — a futile endeavor at the best of times — that is compelling regardless of quality.

But enough about all that, let’s talk about the real reason to be playing this game: The orcs. Shadow of War has even greater volume of randomly generated orcs than the original. Oscillating from hilarious to frightening to just plain bizarre, you will be monologued, insulted, betrayed, taunted, philisophized at and more by the orcs of Mordor. Then you recruit them to your case. It’s a killer’s game of pokemon. If by catching pokemon, you seared their very soul with your hand-brand rather than capturing them in a ball. And If you somehow had any illusions that what you’re doing is just, the game has a quest line that concludes with Talion acquiring an upgrade to his branding skill termed “Worse than Death”.

The characterization of each orc is the charm that sells the whole game. Little snippets of dialogue well voice-acted, some clever writing, and the dynamism that makes every player encounter a different crew of orcs and events, come together to create something truly unique in gaming. On one occasion, I was stealthily shooting orcs from atop a parapet, only to have Talion thrown on his ass by an orc, who had stealthily snuck up on me. Said orc then chased me across the rooftops, hissing only TASTY, SO TASTY, over an over. At a different point, early in the game when I could still die, a random mook killed me and achieved the title “Tark-Slayer” (Tark being a made up word orcs have started calling humans). Later on, when I hunted down and killed him, he fell to his knees and said “I guess that makes you the tark-slayer… slayer”. Talion promptly chopped off his arms and legs, which led to the appearance of a new orc titled “The Dismemberer”, who claimed I showed promise and he’d be willing to show me a thing or two about dismemberment. I ran for my miserable life.

It’s a strange brew of brutality and humor. Wisest among the creatures of Middle-Earth, orcs learned that life (in video games) is cheap.

The first game was much too easy. For the nemesis system to truly shine, you need a nemesis. It’s hard for this to happen when you’re cutting swathes through entire orc strongholds without breaking a sweat. Shadow of War attempts to correct this by adding harder difficulty modes. Nemesis difficulty is certainly better than the original, but if you’re going to use all the tools you have available like I do — converting orcs into spies set to betray enemy warchiefs, using the terrain to your advantage, recruiting a good ‘ole tough bodyguard  — it’s still pretty easy. This is largely a weakness of the “Batman-style” combat system, which limits combat to a few button presses. It’s stylish but shallow. For the second game in a row, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of what the game has to offer simply by trying to play well.

The Familiar Volume 5: Redwood by Mark Z. Danielewski

My reviews for the first four volumes: One Rainy day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain, Hades.

Thus we reach the latest novelty of the Familiar experiment: the season finale. The first four volumes slowly drew the disparate characters of the The Familiar, who have spent thousands of beautifully type-faced pages engaging in mischief, violence and introspection, directly into eachother’s paths. At last, we see them meet.

The great majority of Redwood is concerned with a single scene occurring in the Ibrahim’s living room. A gathering of main characters clashing over the fate of the eponymous kitten. It is a perfectly good scene. An interesting scene. Character and plot. It does what a good scene should.

But it’s the same scene repeated by the five different point of view characters present. There’s sundry details revealed in each chapter. Naturally one person will notice things that another does not. This includes some neat bits like seeing the Ibrahim’s comfortable middle-class house and lifestyle observed by other, less-privileged characters when we’ve already spent multiple books listening to Astair and Anwar struggle with money. Hardly enough to justify the repetition though.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a tight focus. Volume 1 comprised a single day, one rainy day in May, which felt lovingly crafted and well-paced, delving into the recursive depths and quotidian trauma a single day can hold. By contrast, volume 5 feels scant, even sloppy. It’s not merely the scene repetition — the writing itself feels imprecise, less sure-footed, the fantastic bits too muddy. I was not captivated nor satisfied in the way I expected to be.

Not everyone is in the Ibrahim’s living room. There’s movement elsewhere. Luther finally catches up with Domingo, though his arc continues to flirt-with but not commit-to the larger drama. The framing stories that open each volume receive conclusions or further clarity. The gruesome youtube clips of men shooting baby animals concludes and is tied into the main plot and wrapped up by Isandorno. The sections following cave people and far-future humans is far more cohesive and sensical, if still opaque.

I’m still on board the Danielewski train. One clumsy episode does not ruin a great TV show either. But it was certainly a let-down having the series first season finale be the weakest book thus far.

Persona 5

Post election day 2016, San Francisco assumed a state of mourning. People seemed lost, heads lowered. Collective defeat was palpable, almost physical. Like a noxious, marshmallowy fog you could part with your hands. Outrage would be a ways coming. For adults, anyway.

First signs of resistance came the following morning: hundreds of angry high school students marched down Market St, wielding the now familiar mantra: NOT MY PRESIDENT. As I listened to the loudest words from those who couldn’t even vote I thought of all the bullshit young people are peddled about respecting their elders, about adult responsibility. I thought of how it might feel to watch this proved wrong over and over. Then in the most drastic fashion and final verification of this: Trump.

Persona 5 wants to engage with our broken society, which has reached this sordid state, as your best-bud Ruyiji oft repeats, “because of those shitty adults”. School systems with corrupt administrations that care little for their students. A broken political system. A reactionary public eager to be abused. I don’t know much of Japan’s political and social situation, but it’s easy to guess they’re facing many of the same issues most of the rest of the world is in recent years.

You, a high school student on probation for “assault” after shoving a man trying to force a woman into his car, are transferred to Tokyo under the supervision of a family friend. Various supernatural events occur, as these things do, and soon you’re the leader of The Phantom Thieves, righteously toppling corrupt leaders in society while living your normal high school life and assisting others to embrace the “wings of rebellion” and break “the yoke of thy heart”. In other words, hanging out with outsiders and helping them overcome their personal demons. From a doctor ostracized for innovative practices to a young woman winning in a male-dominated sport, they’re people shunned for being different.

So far, so good. Persona 5 even avoids the fallacy of many sci-fi/fantasy stories of laying blame on one big, bad villain. It knows there’s bad people in positions of power, but it also knows they only reached that position due to the complicity of the public. Corrupt politicians don’t simply materialize from the ether. Sure, it fails to reach an answer and lays the blame of society’s ills on the malevolent influence of an evil god that had sabotaged the better nature of humanity from the start, but I appreciate it choosing complete nonsense over an easy answer.

The strong and relatable moral impetus behind the plot only makes the places where it fails so acute. Indeed, the premise of “rebellion” is poisoned from the start. For starters, the social aspect of the game allows the protagonist to date every single woman in the game, including several adults, but refuses to allow even the idea that the main character might be gay. Instead, it treats us to stereotypes. Upon entering Tokyo’s red light district for the first time, there is a gag where the protagonist and his buddy are immediately preyed upon by flamboyant men on the hunt for pretty young boys. It’s terrible. 

Worse is how the game consistently treats one of your party members, Ann. She’s introduced by the conflict with the game’s first major antagonist, Kamoshida, the school gym teacher. Kamoshida is physically abusing the boys on his sports teams as well as sexually abusing the girls. Ann’s friend is a victim of the latter, in part due to her (Ann’s) refusal to give in to Kamoshida’s advances. This leads to Ann’s persona awakening. It’s heavy stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s handled perfectly but it works and Kamoshida is the game’s most hateable villain by a long shot.

Immediately following the defeat of Kamoshida, the gang takes on a corrupt celebrity painter. Their cringeworthy plan involves using Ann as bait with the painter’s apprentice, who is obsessed with painting her nude. It’s played for laughs and said apprentice eventually joins your party. It’s creepy as hell and majorly dissonant following the sequence we just played through. From sexual abuse to an endless laugh-track of teenage girl as nude bait.  Will she do it??? Will the team infiltrate the palace before she’s fully undressed??

Ann will continue to be objectified throughout the game, especially in the anime cut-scenes which seem to exist at least in part so the male cast can ogle her. Occasionally the other female characters too, one of whom apparently exists simply to say “I’m sorry” every other sentence.

In the end, it’s not about rebellion, it’s about maintaining the status quo, treating recent political and social decay as a cancer to be excised so we can return to the norm.

The Best American Essays 2017 edited by Leslie Jamison

Bland. Forgettable. These are not engaging essays. At the midway point, the collection putters into its longest piece — The Book of the Dead — which I should like, given it explores the mining towns of West Virginia, the same topic as a great documentary I watched earlier this year. It was intolerable. I skipped the last several pages entirely. Things improved from there, but generally when picking this anthology up, I’m looking for a good deal more than half-good.

These essays focus heavily on politics. The type of politics that shouldn’t need to be political, like race and health care. This is nominally an improvement on past years, where I complained of far too many essays about intensely personal experiences involving dead parents.  There is something tired about 2017. I suppose I’m looking for something exploratory or fresh and not the same litany of institutional misery I’m already reading everyday. 

Anyway, my favorites:

Indigent Disposition by Christopher Notarnicola : A chilling 2nd person narrative account of how we reduce undesirable people to mere bodies. Especially those that are impoverished or in poor health. Notarnicola enumerates the laws pertaining to “indigent bodies” in a specific county in Florida, and the story of a man about to become a body (“you”) and his brother, a self-made lawnmower man. But mostly it’s an indictment of a country and people that simply lets the most vulnerable among them die. Then blames them for it to keep its collective conscious clear.

 

The Reader is the Protagonist by Karen Palmer : Initially the title refers to the classic children’s book There is a Monster at the End of this Book, where the reader is indeed the protagonist as they turn page after page while Sesame Street’s Grover begs them not to. Karen Palmer is reading this to her daughters in a temporary house in Boulder, Colorado after fleeing her abusive ex-husband with her new one. This leads to a staggering coincidence where Palmer gets a job interview at a mysterious publisher, who turns out to contract crime fiction writers to churn out kitschy texts like a A Handbook for Hitmen. Skeeved out, Palmer leaves, only to discover several years later that a woman fleeing from her abusive ex-husband was murdered by his paid man. They found the publisher’s hitman handbook in his car.

What follows is a brief reflection, from both writer and reader on what should and should not be published. There’s no good answer.

 

H. by Sarah Resnick : Resnick’s uncle is a recovering heroin addict. She takes care of him, with occasional help from father, and about half of this long essay is about that difficult relationship. The other is exploring America’s inability, our outright refusal, to provide quality treatment for addicts. Resnick profiles a center in Vancouver, BC where addicts are free to enter and provided state assistance to get their fix: Clean tools, from needles to pill-crushers, a safe space and attendant nurses. Despite its proven efficacy as an avenue to get people clean, most other western nations continue to ignore data in favor of gut feel. Easier on the pride to let people die than let go of the rhetoric on personal responsibility and shame.

 

Unfinished: Book of Numbers and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

I’m usually pretty good at selecting books I’d enjoy, so it was with a frustrated sigh that I put down two in a row. 

Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Fictional author-insert Joshua Cohen, a failed novelist, is tasked with ghostwriting the autobiography of a tech entrepreneur also named Joshua Cohen, founder of this universe’s Google.

Cohen’s prose is snappy and sharp, his vocabulary impressive in its range. It’s the type of language that is both entertaining and invigorating to experience. This book could be great, it should be great. Instead, it wallows in its miserable characters’ self pity whilst attempting to make points about modern life that largely fall flat.

I quit about two hundred and fifty pages in. The closing subplot went as such: Cohen is in Dubai, where after plenty of inner monologuing about how poorly Arabs treat women, he encounters a woman being beaten by her husband. He then heroically steps in and beats him up! Shortly afterward, he engages in a sexual obsession over this woman, who he saw for like 3 seconds crawling around on the floor, bloodied. He stalks her around the hotel for a while until miraculously, implausibly, she seeks him out in his hotel room for some immediate sex.

Maybe several hundred pages later (the book immediately pivots in form after this to a draft of the ghostwritten biography so it wasn’t happening any time soon), this exploitative and baffling scene somehow has a point, somehow makes sense, or is proven unreliable. I don’t give a shit. It’s virtually impossible to redeem this crap and nothing else about the novel gave me any confidence in Cohen’s thematic virtues.

Of the endless critical praise for this book (hilarious put aside the miserable Goodreads reviews), Cohen’s inevitably compared to David Foster Wallace, one reviewer going so far as to say The Book of Numbers is to the internet what Infinite Jest was to TV. This too is nonsense. For all his lingual skill and wit, Cohen’s insights are banal, things everyone knows already: tech people have too much money, the internet draws us closer while simultaneously making us more alone. It’s fertile literary ground expressed without depth. Falling to cheap jokes instead, ha ha, the rich-person restaurants in Palo Alto have gluten free and vegan menus, what a laugh.

This book is a waste.

 

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson

An overworked, underappreciated Harvard lecturer and linguist stumbles into contact with a shadowy government agency that has been collecting info about the Big Disappearance of Magic, circa 1850 or so. The first chapter reveals our heroine is now stuck sometime in that very same 19th century, so time travel is sure to be afoot.

Here we have almost the opposite reaction — nothing about this book elicited much from me at all. The language here is very basic, without the verve required to pull that off. The plot unfurls through a series of conversations between the main characters, who hypothesize solutions to the origins and mechanics of magic, which then are apparently de facto truth, begging the question of why no one figured this all out beforehand if all it takes is a few 1:1 brainstorming sessions. 

I could also see the book was setting up a romance, but only because the book was sending signals at me, the reader, that hey! here’s a romance, not because I felt any chemistry between the protagonists. Tristan was blunt to the point of dullness, not charm. 

Only about 50 pages into this one and obviously it didn’t trigger the same emotional response as The Book of Numbers, just not for me.

I’m on to reading Borges now to guarantee something I’ll enjoy.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

Testimony by Charles Reznikoff

Okay. OK. The first thing this book will teach you is that…

…between the years of 1885 and 1915, an enormous amount of industrial accidents occurred in this country. Limbs caught in belts or spools and torn off, bodies crushed by debris or collapsing mine shafts, slick and poorly constructed scaffolding leading to great falls into chasms or machinery or boiling fat.

Also, a whole lot of people, a whole lot of children, were killed by trains.

All of this illustrated in sparse, evocative verse:

“In the good old summertime,”
Ellen, all of fourteen, worked in a steam laundry
as a “feeder”:
put collars through the machine that pressed them.

The feeder sat on a platform,
collars on the small table in front of her;
the lower roller hot enough to iron collars as they were passed through,
while the upper roller pressed down upon them
with a pressure of two hundred pounds;
the heated roller was hollow and revolved around gas jets–
so hot that if a collar stopped on it for a minute
It would be scorched.

Ellen saw a collar with a lap on it–
the buttonhole part lapped back on the collar–
put her hand out to pull it away
and her finger was caught in a buttonhole
and she could not get it out
before her hand was drawn between the rollers–
burnt and crushed as she screamed.

(Typing this extends my appreciation of Reznikoff’s precision. The punctuation is so carefully chosen and communicative of the story’s pace.)

Poetry is not my forte. I’ve read very little of it, voluntarily, in my adult life. Certainly not cover to cover. Testimony may be cheating a bit since it’s almost as much short story as verse, but still: now I read poems. I read several vignettes, which ranged from a few lines to two pages, before bed every night and hoped not to dream of getting my arm caught in a belt (I worked on a belt for a long time…) or my torso rent in half by a runaway mine cart. It became somehow soothing.

Racism is another key factor explored here, some verses illustrating the plight of post-reconstruction blacks, written in a time of segregation without the foreknowledge of the civil right’s movement, still thirty years in the future.

Several white men went at night to the Negro’s house,
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery;
his wife and children ran under the bed
and, as the firing from the guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up,
ran through a side door into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the house of a neighbor–
a white man–
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man’s door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for “unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring”–
the white man’s property.

Only a portion of the “Negro” sections follow this kind of tract. Many, perhaps most involving black people, are about the violence they’re enacting, which is nominally no different than the ones about whites, had not every single passage referred to each man or woman as “the Negro” or “the colored woman”, like they’re another species.

The back of the book references the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote Paterson, which influenced a movie of the same name I enjoyed a great deal. Williams will be the next point I continue delving into poetry.